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Behind The Door with Randy Jackson
By Terri Ann Palumbo - 05/21/2002 - 01:52 AM EDT

Randy Jackson's first foray into recording success began with the self-titled Zebra debut album, released on Atlantic Records in 1983. Critically acclaimed for its lush rock sounds, due in large part to Jackson's searing lead vocals and soaring guitar leads, the album sold 75,000 copies the first week. "Who's Behind The Door", written by Jackson, received serious notice in the press, and helped to form legions of Zebra fans almost instantly.

Today, Jackson's about to complete a much-awaited, long-hoped-for new CD with Zebra, which promises to be a coming-of-age, coming-to-awareness opus written by a man who's seemingly never out of ideas and always in demand. The material is largely philosophical in nature, and reveals a songwriter who's come full circle.

"When I was a kid, I had a lot of questions about life in general; that's how I wrote 'Who's Behind The Door' for the first Zebra album. It dealt with the same kind of subject. This whole new CD is an extension of that - not so much musically, but philosophically."

After 20 years in the business, he's writing new songs with a new focus - and doing it on his terms. Jackson hasn't gone after a major record label for the new project, partly because he didn't want to be held to restrictive deadlines and partly because, well, it's not the same business it used to be - not when you're 40-something.

"Age. Period. That's it. I've actually had some people tell me after they've found out I'm not a kid that they don't want to even hear one song. If you're over 25, you're already in the danger zone today. Record companies are talking about releasing 150,000 copies to start, and they're just not going to risk it with someone my age."

Bitter? Not in the least. "Hey, at least it's not about the music! It's not as if they're hearing it and telling me it sucks!"

He's been fine-tuning the project for nearly three years - and after that much time and effort, he's extremely confident about the finished work.

"If it doesn't do well in the marketplace, it doesn't matter. As long as I can listen and not say 'I should have done this' or 'I should have done that', it'll be okay. I did what I needed to do, and I did it without being rushed. That's why I didn't go to a label first. People have wanted another Zebra album for years, and many people said 'I can get it out for you this summer' and that kind of thing. I had to sit down and think for a second, and say to myself, 'Wait. If I say yes, the label will want it sent on time. And if they front me the money, they'll want their deadlines met'. That's all understandable, but I just didn't want to do that - I wanted it to be done when it's done - and now it's within a week or two of being finished."

The material is introspective and philosophical - the mark of maturity mixed with compositional creativity shines through songs with provocative titles such as "Why" and "Who Am I". Getting to the point where he was ready to delve into issues close to his heart was all part of the journey for the versatile songwriter and performer.

"I hadn't really written much about that kind of stuff, because I didn't feel I was ready or qualified. To do something like this, you have to feel confident in what you're saying on those subjects, and I wanted to make sure that what I said, I said properly."

Listeners' interpretations of lyrics are as diverse as the individuals who hear them, and that aspect is something Jackson takes seriously, especially when exploring life issues through music.

"It's not what the lyrics say, it's how they're said that can get you into trouble if the points aren't made in the right way. I've changed the lyrics I don't know how many times in the last three years. Lyrics were never that important when I first started writing."

His early work was more musically influenced, in part because of the genres of the day. "When I was a kid, I couldn't understand most of the words in the songs I heard, so the music drew me to itself, not the lyrics. I still don't really start on lyrics until I've got the musical idea. The music has to move you emotionally; the lyrics can do it, but I don't count on that. Music by itself should be able to put across the feeling. If you can make the music and the lyrics say the very same thing, then you've accomplished what you're looking for. A lot of people ignore that, putting happy words with a sad song or something, and that's just confusing."

"If an artist is trying to convey a message at all, he or she should make sure that the entire message is all there, and that anyone listening will know. I wrote a song called 'Waiting To Die' that was about depression and people who are depressed. The lyrics at first sound about as hopeless as it can get, though they brighten up a bit in the end. When you listen to the music, though, when you hear the first chords, you're there. Anyone who's ever listened to the first few seconds says, 'What do you want me to do, kill myself?' The message is conveyed in the first four chords - and that's what I've tried to do with this whole new CD."

It's not that Randy Jackson's had a lot of time on his hands to write the new project, of course. He has a busy solo acoustic act, still performs with Zebra (often on mini-tours), and frequently takes center stage with symphony orchestras. As antithetical to rock and roll as a symphony performance might seem, it's actually one of Jackson's favorite gigs.

"There's a conductor in Virginia, Brent Havens, who put together scores for Led Zeppelin tunes and hired some local musicians to play bass, drums and guitar with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. The singer they'd hired wasn't working out, so they happened to call my agent. I first worked with the symphony in 1998 and it all just worked great."

Since that first time, he's performed with the Colorado, Atlanta, Jacksonville and other symphonies, and has added a Pink Floyd symphony score to his repertoire with conductor Havens as well. A recent orchestral date in Buffalo sold out so quickly that he's booked to perform there again on July 28, 2002 - this time with the Zeppelin symphonic work.

"The people who play in the symphony orchestra know the songs, but some of them kind of wondered 'who is this guy' at first. But Brent Havens is a great conductor and he made them feel comfortable. He's not fooling around with this - the scores are really written well, and by the end of rehearsals, the musicians all loved it - and the audiences love it."

Randy Jackson's touring schedule and CDs can all be found at http://www.thedoor.com (here's a tip: don't click on "skip the flash intro" - let it play out - it's worth the very few extra seconds).

There's only one problem with writing an article about Randy Jackson - he's accomplished so much, and has so much to say, one article just doesn't cover it. Therefore, I propose "Behind The Door with Randy Jackson: Part II", coming soon.

There are techniques, technological inventions and insights into arranging and composing still to be shared from my interview with Randy, who, aside from being bright, creative and insightful, is a really nice guy from whom one can expect ever-evolving work. Stay tuned.


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